Durango Telegraph - High in the ozone: San Juan County officially hits nonattainment
High in the ozone: San Juan County officially hits nonattainment

It’s official. Four Corners smog levels have drawn national attention. Having consistently violated federal health standards, New Mexico’s San Juan County will be officially recommended this week as the nation’s newest nonattainment area for ozone pollution.

The region’s three existing coal-fired power plants, tens of thousands of oil and gas compressors, motor vehicle exhaust, industrial facilities, and gas and chemical vapors are major contributors to the worsening air quality. When these nitrogen oxide emissions combine with volatile organic compounds and cook in the sun, a substance called ozone forms. Ozone, or smog, is particularly toxic for children and those who are active outdoors. Repeated exposure over only a few months can cause permanent lung damage.

Recognizing these health hazards, the Environmental Protection Agency significantly strengthened its air quality standards for ground-level ozone last year. By signing its most stringent ozone standards ever, the agency took steps to improve public health and protect sensitive trees and plants.

The New Mexico Environmental Department installed an ozone monitor at Navajo Reservoir three years ago. In that time, the monitor has registered readings well above the new standard.

“Based on our three years of readings, we are definitely in nonattainment,” explained Mary Uhl, of the New Mexico Air Quality Bureau. Uhl is sending a recommendation for nonattainment status to the EPA this week.

Because ozone travels before it forms, there is also strong likelihood that La Plata County could make it to nonattainment in coming years. “The standard for ozone is going down,” she said. “We are going to see a lot of areas that were once in compliance fall out of compliance.”

The EPA is required to formulate an action plan for northwest New Mexico by 2013.

– Will Sands